Site proposed for new District 53 school draws opposition
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Second of two parts
When Butler Elementary District 53 began developing plans for a new school, finding an appropriate site was one of the biggest challenges.
A school built to serve almost 500 students should have access to 20 or more acres of land, according to state recommendations, and district officials found only one Oak Brook property meeting that criteria: the Sports Core.
One of two ballot questions many Oak Brook voters will see April 9 asks all residents of the village to approve or deny the sale of up to 8.5 acres of village-owned Sports Core land on which the district hopes to build the new school.
The land proposed to be sold is east of the Oak Brook Public Library and just north of 31st Street.
If the land sale and a separate ballot question asking only District 53 residents for a tax increase to help fund the school both are approved, Oak Brook Village President Gopal Lalmalani said the village will sell the land for fair market value.
If that happens, District 53 officials say they will move forward with plans to construct an almost 120,000-square-foot building with 28 classrooms to replace the aging Brook Forest Elementary and Butler Junior High schools.
If voters reject either or both proposals, district officials say they likely will focus instead on making $12.2 million worth of required life/safety improvements to the existing schools.
District officials say building a school at the Sports Core will help unify Oak Brook's subdivisions and provide a boost in funding for the recreation area, which has been operating at a deficit in recent years.
But the proposed location is drawing opposition from some in Oak Brook who want to preserve open space at the Sports Core, which includes a golf course, polo and soccer fields, and the Bath & Tennis Club.
"There are definitely two sides to this debate. There are many people who want to maintain open space, which is what Oak Brook is unique for ... and then there are some people in the village who would like to combine the two schools and consolidate them into one operation, and they have decided this area would be best," Lalmalani said. "This has been the most divisive of all issues that we face. It splits us right down the middle."
The degree of division is part of why the village board decided to ask voters what to do, and listen to their answer. Although the land sale ballot question is nonbinding, Lalmalani said the village will follow its recommendation, selling the land if voters say so, and keeping it if voters say no.
Only suitable site
District 53 looked into acquiring forest preserve land, a piece of McDonald's property near the post office on Kensington Road, and an office building on Jorie Boulevard, but those sites were too restricted, not for sale or inappropriate for a school, board President Alan Hanzlik said.
The Sports Core, which the village bought decades ago from prominent landowner and civic leader Paul Butler, offers enough space east of the library to build the school along with parking, water retention and access roads, Hanzlik said. Other than the 8.5 acres the district wants to buy, District 53 would rent more land to use as playing fields.
Lalmalani said the village is in the process of seeking two or more appraisals to determine the value of the land that may be sold. One appraisal placed it between $500,000 and $600,000 an acre, or between $4.25 million and $5.1 million in total, he said.
"There is not a big amount of land available for anyone to get in that area," Lalmalani said. "Since there is a tremendous demand for this precious land in a very good location, basically we should get what we want."
Funds from a possible land sale and ongoing lease would help the village make improvements to the Sports Core, which has added $2.3 million in debt to the village's general fund over the past few years, according to village figures.
Many residents who support the proposed land sale say money is a driving force, Oak Brook Village Manager David Niemeyer said.
"If we sell this land, we'll be getting a considerable infusion of cash from the school district that could help our Sports Core, which really has not put a lot of money toward upgrading its buildings and facilities in recent years," Niemeyer said.
The village could use the money to construct a walkway from 31st Street to the Bath & Tennis Club, build a garden area and a gazebo around a pond, upgrade the club's swimming pool, install a synthetic turf soccer field or make flood control and other improvements to the golf course, village officials said.
Fearing loss of land
While recreation facilities at the Sports Core could be improved with money from a possible land sale, opponents of the district's plan say those upgrades would not be worth the loss of open space.
The site serves as parking during major events and allows library patrons to enjoy a view of natural land from the glass-walled building, said Karen Bushy, former Oak Brook village president and a vocal opponent of both the land sale and District 53's new school plan.
"What they're taking away is all the parking for fireworks and the Taste of Oak Brook," Bushy said. "I just don't think they're thinking these things through. It sounds good until you actually look at the map."
Proponents of the land sale and new school plan, including members of the political action committee Citizens for a Better Oak Brook, say the 8.5 acres the district seeks makes up only 3 percent of the total Sports Core acreage. Hanzlik said portions of Sports Core land already has been sold four times between 2000 and 2005 for between $54,000 and about $1 million.
Bushy says segments of the land only were sold three times, and none came close in size to the 8.5 acres now in question. She said two small parcels not contiguous to the Sports Core were sold, along with a "mowing strip" along 31st Street that went to DuPage County to allow the road to be widened.
"It may only be 3 percent of the gross acreage of the Sports Core, but it's almost all of the open fields that aren't already designated for something else," Bushy said. "The concern I'm hearing is it's taking away something that most villages are clawing to get whatever they can as far as open space."
Oak Brook voters in the April 9 election will direct trustees whether to sell the land, and District 53 voters will indicate if they are willing to pay increased taxes to fund the new school, which would be designed for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
If both ballot questions win voter approval, the school board and village board can begin negotiations about the price of the land, the amount of space to be leased, traffic flow, water detention and zoning permission to build the school on property designated for conservation or recreation.
Those in Oak Brook say the outcome truly is in the hands of voters.
"There are strong feelings on both sides," Niemeyer said.
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